Committing Series

Romantic Times Book Reviews had an article in their recent issue called “Stop the Series!” in which they asked various authors if they ever thought it was a good time to quit.  Interestingly, they interviewed at least one author whose publisher didn’t give them the option of continuing a beloved series (and one who actually chose to opt out), but for the most part the answer could be summed up like this:  as long as I’m having fun and they keep paying me, I’ll keep writing.

What the article didn’t discuss in any depth is how strong the pressure can be to continue a successful series — or invent one.  Way back in the late Cretaceous when I got my first publishing contract for Archangel Protocol,I had no intention of “committing series” as a science fiction fan once told me I’d done.  When my editor and I were negotating what the second book in my contract would be, I gave her a whole laundry list of stand-alone ideas in an email.  At the very end of this huge pitch sheet, I added a little note:  “Or I suppose I could write a sequel.”

“Do that,” was the response. 

And that was all she wrote.  Literally.  I spent the next three years revisting a world I had every intention of leaving behind.  I don’t regret it for a moment, mind you, but I often wonder what would have happened if I’d been more passionate about one of the other projects I’d proposed.  Fits of fancy will sometimes have me believe I might still be writing science fiction with all my books still in print.  However, I wonder…  I can only think of a handful of recent authors who have eschewed series for stand-alones whose careers are still healthy and thriving. 

Is there a place in publishing any more for the author who writes something new every time? 

I think this might be another key to the question of why fantasy often outsells science fiction.  The trope of the fantasy package is “the trilogy.”  I think readers, including myself, have a very strong yen for “more of the same” (and not necessarily in a bad way.)  Science fiction, though it, too, is going more and more for series, has in the past fostered “names” rather than series, ie. another completely different, yet mind-blowing book by William Gibson [or fill-in other SF giant of your choice]. 

I’ve always ended up “committing series,” and I have mixed feelings about them.  On one hand, you have the potential to attract readership and keep it growing with every new book in the series.  On the other, I’ve heard the complaint from readers that they’re hesitant to pick up a book only to discover it’s number three in a four book series.  My response as a writer has always been to make my books as stand-alone as possible, but then I sometimes wonder if I do too many contortions to include all the salient information about past adventures….  What are your preferences as a reader?  As a writer?

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  1. 1. S.C. Butler

    Then there’s the idea of writing one big book but having to cut it up into pieces so the publisher doesn’t cry. Most people think of such books as ‘series’ when they’re actually just a three or four volume novel.

  2. 2. Lyda Morehouse

    Excellent point! That’s happened to at least two of my writer friends.

  3. 3. King Rat

    The series as one book cut into a novel I dislike even if I like the particular story. It requires a huge investment in time on the part of the reader.

    For the real series, I’m of the opinion that an author really ought to have something new to say that is best done as a sequel rather than just fulfill what is in essence a prurient interest from the readers. Card’s Ender’s Shadow and related sequels are an excellent example of nothing new to say, just going through the motions of filling in information about the characters and history. The original Ender’s Game/Speaker for the Dead series is the other. Speaker for the Dead had a lot new to say and was well done to use the Ender’s Game settings.

    In either case (book as series or real series) it’s really frustrating to me when I get into them and have to wait ages and ages for the next one to come out. It’s particularly bad for the story as series kind because you don’t get the conclusion you want to know without patience.

  4. 4. Sam

    I used to (and for second-hand books occassionally still do) be happy with starting to read a series with the second or third book. These days I find I prefer to start at the start, rather than have to take time to read the book again when I’m reading the series “forwards” later.

    This often runs me directly into one of my pet hates though: publishers who don’t keep the entire series in print at once.

    I ran into a particularly bad case of this earlier in the year – book five or six of a series had come out, book two had recently been reprinted, and could I get book one, three and four anywhere at all? Nope, they’d been out of print for at least three years.

    I managed to get them second-hand, but it was a lot more hassle, and it’s lost sales as far as the publisher is concerned.

  5. 5. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Sam: Years ago it seemed to be more of a habit to drop the backlist (and less of a habit these days, thank goodness). As a reader, I remember buying books I had no intention of reading until the final book in the series came out because I knew that the earlier books would be gone by the time the third book was out. I always thought that made no sense at all and gradually I stopped buying as many books and started using the library more because I found myself having a lot of books I didn’t like.

  6. 6. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I’m committing series right now with my Crosspointe books (as opposed to trilogy which to me is more like one book broken up into three parts). In the Crosspointe books, what binds them together is the growing political unrest and intrigue. I’m trying to make them stand completely alone, often with new characters taking the main stage, or minor characters from other books stepping up. This is kind of an experiment for met because I don’t have an endpoint for the story in sight. Maybe I should clarify that. I do have a culminating series of events I want to get to, but when I think of history and culture, there’s always new conflicts rising, new big events on the horizon. The story of the culture doesn’t end, but it develops and changes as the culture does. So I’m playing with that idea of various threads in the history coming together.

    I actually in my head liken it to one of those disaster movies where you follow the stories of 25 different characters until they converge eventually.

  7. 7. Sam

    Diana (@5): That’s a little odd, my experience seems to be the opposite – it’s becoming more of a problem.

    With shelf-space in the sci-fi/fantasy section coming under more pressure as more and more books appear to be published each year, I’m guessing the shops ditch stuff faster and if the shops aren’t going to stock it for so long, the publishers presumably have cut back on printing it for so long.

    I’m in the UK, maybe it’s different elsewhere.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    I think it’s worth bearing in mind that “series” can cover a broad spectrum of types. The Lord of the Rings was a single book cut into three for practical reasons. A true trilogy is often more like a three-movement sonata, with distinct parts, the first of which might stand on its own, but the second requires the third for resolution. Or connected books, but each can more or less be read on its own. Or episodic adventures, where the protagonist and maybe some secondary characters carry through, but each story is completely free-standing. Or writing in different corners of the same world, with different characters.

    I’m not going to try to outline all of my own preferences as a reader or a writer, but the readers who tar “series” with a single brush are overlooking a lot of these distinctions, and the writers who cringe at the thought of one kind might have a lot of fun with another.

  9. 9. Karen Wester Newton

    Very true about different kinds of series (serieses?). Look at mysteries. Most of them can be read in any order; the only “series” aspect is that they have the same detective and setting. The commitment to read the books in order is what makes me dislike a long series (i.e., a single story printed in multiple books). Anything more than three books is just too difficult—to much overhead to remember the plot and characters’ names, and too long a read without true resolution.

  10. 10. Simon Haynes

    There are series books and sequels. The latter can be a problem if they’re published over a lengthy span of time (e.g. the Tamir Triad, or the Harry Potter books), because I tend to forget what happened in the earlier one.

    A book series is more like a regular TV show – same major characters facing different challenges, a guest spot or two and perhaps a thread which runs through the lot but which isn’t central to the plot. Technically, you should be able to read the books out of order (after the first) and still enjoy them all. It doesn’t matter whether the series continues or comes to a sudden halt, because each title should be completely self-contained.

    Fantasy trilogies are inevitably one long story presented in three acts. Once complete, there’s the option of a follow-up trilogy or two (e.g. Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books), but they’re not usually direct sequels.

    A series, on the other hand, can go on forever. Long live the series ;-)

  11. 11. Soni

    For a great insight into how to do a non-series very well, I suggest Dick Francis. He wrote a gazillion mysteries, and only a few of his protagonists appear in more than one book. The core of his oeuvre was the horse racing world and crime. Everything else was up for grabs – protags could be jockeys, owners, newsies and even a caterer in the latest book.

    I think there’s going to be a resurgence in “series” created out of many stories written in a Universe, world or timeline that aren’t sequentially or even directly related, but that orbit around a central event or world. Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books and rumors of “sequels” to Cloverfield being alternate viewpoints of the same events come to mind.

  12. 12. Jeff

    When you use the phrase “committing series” is that meant in an ironic way, said tongue-in-cheek as if you are “committing murder?” I’ve heard the phrase before, and that was my first thought. It occurs to me now that it could also be said straightforwardly, as in “committing to write a series.”

  13. 13. Chris Coen

    As a reader, I prefer to start a series, in any of its iterations, at the start. While it may be true, as Simon suggests, that TV shows (or series(es) of books that are similar in structure) often have longterm subplot arcs that don’t bear directly on the main plot in each episode, for myself I prefer to watch those subplots build, the better to appreciate their final payoff. That payoff is something the scattershot reader is, I think, going to miss. The Spenser mystery novels are standalones…but half of the pleasure I get from reading them is seeing how Spenser’s relationships with friends and with Susan, his girlfriend, are affected by the main plot of each book and how these people grow and change.

    As a writer of fantasy yet to be published, I have to admit that Simon’s comment about fantasy series “inevitably” being one long story presented in three acts makes me uncomfortable. Which is not to say that I disagree with the observation in general. I’d like, however, to hope there’s more room for individuality than that.

  14. 14. Laura Reeve

    Thanks for this post, Lyda. You’re not the only one who’s uncomfortable “committing series.”

    I did it without forethought or intention. My first military SF novel was written as stand-alone and I got a 3-book contract, where they specified that all the books center on the same character and universe. I thought, “Sequels, great, yippee!” Then I got the cover copy and art (which, as a new author, put me on the ceiling for a while) and I finally read it carefully. At the top of the cover, it said, “First in a Brand New Series.”

    Uh-oh. I sobered. As Marie says, there’s a distinction between structuring a series versus writing linear sequels. I reworked book #2 quite a bit before sending it in (due today, thank goodness that’s over!). Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ve got a grip on how to keep a character series fresh and interesting, so I’m devoting significant thought to book #3.


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Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.



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